House of the Accused

When priests within the Salesian order based in San Francisco were accused of sex abuse, the leaders chose to keep quiet.

In the summer of 2003, Purdy, upon succeeding Reina, met with Presenti after reviewing the personnel files of the priests under his command, and, according to court documents, Presenti told him that he had molested Gross. In his deposition last October, Purdy says that he notified Bishop John Wester of the San Francisco Archdiocese, who at the time served as Archbishop Levada's point man on sex abuse issues. Levada removed Presenti's privileges to perform priestly duties publicly within the archdiocese, although Presenti continued to conduct Mass within the Salesian community. Even so, the Salesians did not see fit to remove Presenti as treasurer.

And judging from Purdy's deposition testimony, the order's top official in San Francisco, like his predecessor, did nothing to determine whether there might be other sex complaints against Presenti.

In the deposition, Anderson, the plaintiffs' attorney, asked Purdy, "When he, that is, Presenti, confessed that he had abused Gross, did you ask him if he had abused any other youth while serving as a Salesian?"

Saints Peter and Paul Church in North Beach is 
served by Salesian priests, including one current and 
one former associate pastor who have been accused 
of sexual misconduct.
James Sanders
Saints Peter and Paul Church in North Beach is served by Salesian priests, including one current and one former associate pastor who have been accused of sexual misconduct.
The Salesians of St. John Bosco provincial house at 
1100 Franklin St.
James Sanders
The Salesians of St. John Bosco provincial house at 1100 Franklin St.

"No, I didn't ask that question," Purdy said.

"And why not?"

"I don't know. I didn't ask him. I was just concerned about this [allegation]."


Within the Salesian order in San Francisco it would be difficult to find a priest who has enjoyed a more blue-ribbon career than Father Bernard Dabbene. In more than 30 years, Father Ben, as he is known, has held key positions of responsibility at numerous Salesian outposts on the West Coast. He was principal of Salesian High School; director of Don Bosco Tech, a high school in the Los Angeles suburb of Rosemead; and vice principal of St. Francis Central Coast High School in Watsonville.

Dabbene was pastor of San Francisco's Corpus Christi Church for six years until Levada picked him for top administrative posts in 1997. Besides making Dabbene liaison to the archdiocese's 89 parishes, with the title of vicar for pastoral ministry, Levada also appointed him to the archdiocesan board of education.

It was thus no small embarrassment when, in 2000, Dabbene was arrested for allegedly sexually molesting a 17-year-old boy in a parked car near the Mission Bay waterfront. The circumstances were about as humiliating as it gets. According to the police report, both the priest's and the boy's trousers were unsnapped and unzipped when a cop approached the car late at night and pointed a flashlight inside. When Dabbene was ordered out of the car, the police said, his pants fell to his ankles.

In a plea arrangement, prosecutors dropped two felony charges -- assault with intent to commit oral copulation and false imprisonment -- in return for Dabbene's pleading guilty to a single misdemeanor child molestation count. Sentenced to three years' probation, he was required to enter counseling, register as a sex offender, and stay away from children.

Levada quickly severed Dabbene's prominent role within the archdiocese. In 2001, after the plea bargain was executed, the order's superior, Reina, packed the errant priest off to St. John Vianney Center in suburban Philadelphia, where he underwent six months of sex abuse counseling.

Yet by Dabbene's own account in a deposition given to plaintiffs' attorneys three months ago, never in his more than 30 years as a priest did any of his superiors -- including Reina -- ever bother to ask him if he had engaged in sexual misconduct with anyone other than the boy he pleaded guilty to molesting. In an interview, Reina, who was superior from 1997 to 2003, tells SF Weekly that he saw no reason to question Dabbene about such matters, saying, "I concluded that if that was something he wanted to proffer, he could."

One person who wasn't scandalized by the arrest was George Stein, a former seminarian who says Dabbene molested him twice in 1959 when he was a ninth-grader at Salesian High School, where Dabbene, who had not yet been ordained as a priest, was a lay brother teaching history. Stein says he reported the abuse to the order's superior, the late Father Alfred Cogliandro, and that afterward Dabbene "left me alone."

It wasn't until 2002, however, that Stein says he had sufficiently gotten over the abuse and decided to come forward and relate to Salesian officials what had happened, although he assumed -- based on what he had told Cogliandro long ago -- that a report of the incidents was probably in the priest's personnel file. Stein, whose younger brother is a Salesian priest and who once had ambitions to be one himself, wasn't interested in suing the Salesians, and still isn't. "For the sake of others, I wanted to make sure that what happened to me was on the record. It was meant as a wake-up call for the order," he says.

Stein wrote to Reina informing him of the abuse allegation and received a cordial letter in response, with Reina assuring him that "all of us are trying to handle the situation in the best way we can ... to get the help we need so that no other incidents ever happen again." Reina arranged for professional counseling for Stein at the Salesians' expense.

Stein also wrote to Dabbene seeking an apology.

Stein says Dabbene's response was puzzling.

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